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The Gospel of Mark—Jesus, the Servant
Most likely the first of the four gospels written, Mark is a fast-paced narrative recorded primarily for Gentiles. The text is written mainly in Greek and contains some Latin. It frequently translates words and phrases from Hebrew and Aramaic and explains Jewish customs that would have been unfamiliar to a non-Jewish audience.
John Mark was apparently associated with Jesus later in His ministry. Although not one of the twelve apostles, Mark may have been a member of the household where Jesus and His disciples celebrated the last supper. The scene of the young man in the sheet fleeing naked from the soldiers in Mark 14:51-52 seems to indicate Mark followed Jesus and His disciples from the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane. Although we are aware of Mark’s relationship to Paul and Barnabus from Acts 12, 13 and 15, we learn that he was also associated with Peter, according to 1 Peter 5:13. There is a good chance that Mark wrote his gospel under the dictation of the Apostle Peter, since the book contains many references to incidences only he would have known about (e.g.—Mark 1:16-31). According to Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts, this would set the date of the writing of this book somewhere between A.D. 55 and 68—around the martyrdom of Peter (c. A.D. 64) and before the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) [© 1996, by Thomas Nelson, Inc., p. 327].
Mark’s Gospel follows Jesus’ movements from place-to-place throughout the holy land—in Galilee, on the way to Judea, and then in Jerusalem. The shortest of the four Gospels, it reads like a novella, featuring a lot of action and suspense. It shows how Jesus exercised His divine power and authority over evil spirits, sin, nature, disease and death, and the Jewish traditions. It also shows how He served God and others faithfully, ultimately offering Himself as a sacrifice to save us all. There is much less focus on the teaching of Jesus than on what He did and how others reacted to Him.
Mark Chapter 1
The first sentence of Mark’s gospel lets us know who is the hero of his book: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). But then, he immediately introduced another important person, John the Baptist, by quoting Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3, which foretold his coming:
“Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.”
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.’” (Mk. 1:2-3)
Mark explained that John baptized people in the wilderness and preached to them about being sorry for their sins, so that they could be forgiven (v. 4). In a nation starved for 400 years of hearing the word of YHWH, John’s preaching caused quite a stir. Folks from all over Judea and the holy city of Jerusalem came out to hear him and be “baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (5).
Some may have come out to see the spectacle of this desert prophet dressed in a camel-hair garment—possibly something more like burlap than the furry skins in which popular film and illustrations normally depict him—and a leather belt. Stranger, still, was his diet of “locusts and wild honey,” which seem undesirable to Westerners, but was perfectly Kosher, according to Mosaic Law (Mk. 1:6; Leviticus 11:22).
John understood that his mission was not to gather followers for himself, but to point people to the coming Christ. He told whoever came to listen, “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8, NIV).
Although John the Baptist was important to Mark’s narrative, he did not dwell on him or his message as long as the other gospel writers. Instead, Mark jumped right back into his story about the Lord, telling us that “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (v. 9). As soon as He came out of the water, the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus—either in the physical form or in the manner of a dove lighting on its perch (10). Just to make sure that John knew Who he had just baptized, the Father in heaven declared this blessing over Jesus: “You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (11).
With characteristic urgency that the careful reader will notice throughout his gospel, Mark said, “Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness,” where Jesus was tempted for forty days by Satan (12-13). Whereas Matthew and Luke presented some of the dialogue between the devil and Jesus (Mt. 4:1-11 & Lk. 4:1-13), Mark skipped all of that and said only that Jesus “was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.” Leaping ahead once more, Mark told his readers, “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,” urging people to repent and believe (Mk. 1:14-15).
Verses 16-20 describe the recruitment of Jesus’ first disciples. As He strolled along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus said to Simon and Andrew his brother, who were casting a net into the sea, “Come, follow me! I will teach you how to catch people instead of fish” (Mark 1:16-17, GW). Without hesitation, the brothers left their livelihood and followed Jesus (v. 18). Essentially the same conversation with the same response occurred between the Lord and two other fishermen, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending their nets (19-20). Apparently, by this time, people had heard about Rabbi Jesus, since Zebedee made no effort to stop his sons from leaving the family business. Would modern-day parents be so accommodating?
From there, the fellows went into Capernaum, where Jesus entered the synagogue and taught on the Sabbath (21). Here is another indication that Jesus had gained some notoriety, as not just anyone off the streets would be allowed to preach on a Saturday in the local Jewish house of worship. Unlike other guest rabbis, however; Jesus astounded his audience by teaching them “as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (22).
Mark then related the first of many of Jesus’ exorcisms. A man in the worship service had ‘an unclean spirit’ and cried out, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” (23-24). Jesus silenced the demon and commanded it to come out of the man (25). It put up a fight, sending the poor fellow into convulsions and crying out some more, before the spirit left its victim (26). How embarrassing it must have been to become such a spectacle in the middle of a worship service! Yet, how wonderful to be free—perhaps for the first time in years—of an oppressive spirit.
This further amazed the eyewitnesses, who wondered how a man could not only teach with authority these new ideas, but was even obeyed by demonic spirits (27). It was not long before Jesus’ “fame spread throughout all the region around Galilee” (28).
After the meeting, Jesus and His four disciples went over to Simon and Andrew’s house, where Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed with a fever of some sort (29-30). Jesus took the woman’s hand, raised her up, and the fever disappeared (31). So complete and rapid was her recovery, that the dear lady began to wait on the five men!
By evening, after the Sabbath was over, word had gotten around about this miracle-worker. Folks from “the whole city” brought to the house where Jesus was staying their sick and those who were demon-possessed (32-33). Apparently He attended to every case—healing people with all sorts of diseases and casting out many demons—again, not allowing the demons to speak because of their insider knowledge of who Jesus was (34).
Unlike modern-day physicians or psychiatrists, Jesus didn’t set up shop in that place and expect folks to come to him for healing and deliverance. Instead, He slipped out early the next morning for prayer, and then prepared to move on to the next village (35 & 37). When Simon and the others found Jesus and pointed out that everyone was looking for Him, the Lord explained that He needed to preach in other towns, as well, since that was His mission (36-38). Soon, Jesus’ itinerant ministry spread throughout all of Galilee, where He preached in their synagogues and cast out demons (39).
On one occasion a leper came to Jesus, kneeling down and begging for help.“If You are willing,” the man said, “You can make me clean” (40). “[M]oved with compassion,” Jesus reached out and touched the man, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” (41). Not only was it extraordinary that the Lord healed a disease for which there was no known cure, but that He was willing to touch a person who was so contagious that Jewish Law required strict isolation and quarantine (Mk. 1:42; Lev. 13:1-46).
Rather than have the fellow stick around and offer the thanks Jesus rightly deserved, the Lord “sent him away at once,” instructing the man to “say nothing to anyone;” but to show himself to the priest, and make the customary offering for cleansing “as a testimony to them.” (Mk. 1:43-44; Lev. 14:1-32). Instead, the former leper broadcast what Jesus had done to such an extent that the Lord “could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places;” where people came from miles around to receive His ministry (Mk. 1:45).
Mark Chapter 2
In keeping with his narrative style, Peter, via Mark, tells us, “A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that He had come home. So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and He preached the word to them” (Mark 2:1-2). Back in the days of Jesus, Israel didn’t have anything like our modern auditoriums in most of its cities and villages. You might have the occasional Greek or Roman amphitheater or stadium in some of the largest metropolitan areas, but there were really no buildings designed to accommodate large crowds.
So, when four men carrying a friend on a stretcher arrived on the scene, there was no way for them to reach Jesus through the doors of the building where He was preaching; therefore, “they made an opening in the roof above Jesus” and lowered their paralyzed companion down to Him (vv. 3-4). Imagine what would happen if someone did something like that today. Both the speaker and his audience would be indignant—not to mention the owner of the building that was violated in such a way! However, Jesus was impressed not so much by what the four men did, but why. Verse 5 tells us, “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”
Here is a bit of instruction for those of us who have experienced or operate in the gift of healing. Too often, the sick are blamed for not receiving the miracles they desire. Yet, they aren’t necessarily the ones who need to have faith. Notice that it wasn’t the paralytic’s faith (or lack thereof) that motivated Jesus. It was the faith of the man’s friends. Having heard about this itinerant rabbi’s power to heal, they went and got their friend, and laid him on a mat, so they could carry him to the place where Jesus was. There, the four men dug through the roof and ceiling of the house, and then carefully lowered the mat with the paralyzed man down into the room where Jesus was teaching. There’s no way they would have gone to that much trouble if they did not believe that Jesus would be willing and able to do something to help their friend!
We may have loved ones who are sick or hurting. Rather than chide them for not having enough faith to be healed, sometimes it is up to us to have faith in their behalf. Then Jesus can move in their lives because of our faith. Steve and Annie Chapman wrote a great song about this called, “Faith of a Few Close Friends,” that beautifully explains this idea. You can hear it, see the lyrics, and read the story behind this encouraging song at Steve’s blog, http://www.steveandanniechapman.com/2013/03/18/faith-of-a-few-close-friends/.
Jesus knew that the sick man was not only paralyzed physically, but emotionally and spiritually, as well. That’s why He responded by telling the fellow that his sins were forgiven. But some of the religious leaders present took offense at this. Although they did not verbalize it out loud, they thought to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (6-7).
Using his favorite word, Mark wrote, “Immediately Jesus knew in His spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts,” and He called them out (8). “Which is easier:” Jesus asked, “to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?” (9). I’m sure there was a dramatic pause for effect, while Jesus let his audience mull over that question for a moment. Then, He said, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” and then told the disabled man, “get up, take your mat and go home” (10-11). As directed, the fellow stood—perhaps for the first time in his life—gathered up the mat he’d been carried on, and then walked out of that place in front of all those witnesses (12a)! Naturally, “This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’ (12b).
How sad that those people of God had never seen anyone healed instantly at the word of a true prophet! Yet, in our modern churches, we all too often must admit the same thing. We are too quick to rely on modern medical procedures or pharmaceuticals to treat our maladies. Or we just resign ourselves to our fate of suffering, rather than go to the Great Physician and allow Him to minister to our need according to His divine insight.
Next, Mark informed his readers that Jesus returned to the lake—most likely referring to the Sea of Galilee, also called Kinneret/Kinnereth, Lake of Gennesaret, or Lake Tiberias. Being a large bowl shape, the banks of the lake served as a natural amphitheater perfect for carrying sound to a substantial group of people. When a crowd gathered, Jesus began to teach them (13). “As he walked along,” Jesus “saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth.” Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13 indicate that this man was also called James. When Jesus invited Levi/James to follow Him, the tax collector did just that—again, without hesitation (14).
In honor of his new friend and rabbi, Levi held a dinner party at his home. Among those in attendance were “many tax collectors and ‘sinners’…for there were many who followed [Jesus]” (15). Again, the religious elite were taken aback that a rabbi would keep company with such people (16). Jesus overheard the Pharisees asking His disciples why He chose to eat with such notorious individuals, to which He replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (17). No doubt, these high-minded fellows were surprised. Jesus wasn’t interested in the cream of the crop, but the dregs of society. That’s completely contrary to what performance-based cultures expect!
About that time, “John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.” Some people came and asked Jesus why His disciples weren’t participating (18). His answer was an illustration. “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” He asked, comparing Himself to the honored guest of a wedding feast (19). John the revelator so depicts the risen Lord Jesus this way in Revelation 19:7 and 21:9. Jesus said it made no sense for His disciples to fast while He was there, but indicated that in the future, “when the bridegroom is taken away from them,” that His followers would fast (Mark 2:20, ESV).
Next, the Lord gave two illustrations with the same meaning to explain why He was doing things in such an unexpected way. First, He said, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse” (v. 21). Likewise, He said new wine is not poured into old, dried out wineskins. Otherwise, as the fermentation process makes the wine expand, it “will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined.” (22). Jesus wasn’t tacking His ideas onto the Jews’ old traditions. He was introducing a new and living covenant that needed to be understood in a new context and expressed in novel ways.
Nevertheless, His critics were relentless. “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as His disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’” (23-24).
According to Exodus 31:15 and 35:2, the Hebrews were to keep the Sabbath holy, and anyone who performed any work on that day faced the death penalty. The Jewish leaders had come up with a whole list of things a person couldn’t do on the Sabbath, and harvesting grain was one of them. Picking a few ears of wheat, rubbing them in their hands, and snacking on them—as Luke 6:1 tells us was actually going on—certainly does not constitute harvesting grain. But these religious elites were sticklers about enforcing their traditional views on what the Law said was okay or not.
Jesus was quick to defend His disciples.
“Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” (Mark 2:25-26).
Then, to these stuffy old men who had made the seventh day a burden, Jesus offered this clarification: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (v. 27). He further blew them away by asserting that, “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (28). Our weekly day of worship is not meant to be a straight-jacket constraining us with a long list of restrictions. It’s supposed to be a time of rest, reflection, refreshment and renewal. Our focus should be, not on the list of dos and don’ts, but on the One who instituted the Sabbath for our benefit.
Mark Chapter 3
Since the local synagogue, like our neighborhood churches, was the worship center in most Hebrew villages, Jesus generally made a point of visiting them as much as possible early in His ministry. Mark 3 opens by telling us, “Another time He went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there.” (v. 1). Now, there may have been any of a number of reasons that this man was described with the same word Greek speakers used to describe a raisin or a withered plant. Perhaps his limb was deformed from birth. Maybe he had broken it somehow, and it wasn’t set properly, or it had been crushed in an accident when something heavy fell on it. Perhaps a nerve had been severed in some injury, and his hand was paralyzed in an awkward position. In either case, the man was disabled and most likely could not easily earn a living, since he could not dig or carry anything in his crippled arm.
The religious leaders were still out to get Jesus. More than likely, they had invited the man to come that day to the synagogue, just hoping to set the itinerant rabbi up. Verse 2 tells us point-blank, “Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath.” Like the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8:1-11, these Pharisees weren’t concerned at all for the fellow with the disability, they just wanted to catch Jesus doing something wrong, so they could get rid of Him.
Jesus, however, saw the man. He saw His need. And despite His awareness of what was going on, He invited the fellow with the shriveled hand to stand to his feet right in front of the group present in God’s house that day (Mk. 3:3). Turning to His critics, Jesus asked, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (v. 4). He undoubtedly waited a considerable amount of time for an answer, but there was not a word from the audience. Here they were in a house of worship, and all the attendees could think of was how to entrap God’s Messenger with an unsuspecting victim!
Frustrated with these stubborn, vindictive, callous men, Jesus turned to the crippled man and said, “Stretch out your hand” (5). Hoping beyond hope, the man complied. As he extended his hand—perhaps for the first time in years, if not his entire life—the man must have marveled to see it straight and strong. He quite likely flexed his fingers in awe and wonder. He was healed!
To the disabled man and Jesus’ disciples, this was a miracle. To the legalistic Pharisees, it was an opportunity to accuse Jesus, yet again, of Sabbath-breaking. Therefore, they “went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” (6). What strange allies! The Pharisees were the religious conservatives of their day—one might call them fundamentalist Jews. The Herodians were the liberals—those heavily influenced by their previous Greek overlords. These two groups must have shared a deep and bitter hatred of Jesus to have overlooked their vast political and doctrinal differences in order to plot together to have Christ killed!
Jesus didn’t stick around to see what they had in mind. Verse 7 says He “withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed.” There, people from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon came to hear and see this Teacher speak. Jesus had to arrange to push out a ways in a small boat, because so many in the crowd were pressing forward to touch Him, so that they, too, could be healed (8-9).
Wherever Jesus went, miracles happened. People were healed. Demonized people fell down in front of Him and declared Jesus the Son of God (10-11). However, Jesus commanded them to be quiet, because He didn’t need demons testifying about Him (12).
About this time, “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him.” (13). A parallel passage in Luke 6:12-13 tells us Jesus spent the entire night on the mountain in prayer, before selecting twelve individuals. According to Mark 3:14-19, the band of men chosen as His inner circle included:
- Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter)
- James, son of Zebedee
- James’ brother John (to these two siblings, Jesus gave the name Boanerges, from an Arabic word, which means “Sons of Thunder”)
- Philip, whom John 1:43-44 tells us was from Peter and Andrew’s home town
- Matthew, a tax collector who later authored the first gospel
- Thomas, whom we know as the doubter, but whom John 20:24-29 informs us was a twin (the meaning of the word, Didymus)
- James son of Alphaeus, also known as Levi the tax collector from the previous chapter
- Simon the Zealot
- Judas Iscariot, who later betrayed Jesus.
If you read the parallel passages in the other gospels (Matthew 10:2-4 & Luke 6:13-16), you’ll notice that there are a few variations in the names of the disciples listed. You can download a document that has these passages printed side-by-side, along with a chart that compares the three lists of names here.
Here is what I observed:
- Matthew and Luke both identify Andrew as Simon Peter’s brother (Matt. 10:2; Lk. 6:14).
- All three passages list James and John together; Matthew and Mark identify them as sons of Zebedee, while Mark mentions their interesting nickname (Mt. 10:2; Mk. 3:17).
- Philip and Bartholomew are listed together in all three passages, possibly indicating the two were related to one another—maybe even brothers.
- Likewise, Thomas and Matthew are listed together, quite likely for the same reason.
- In all three lists, James (Levi) is identified as the son of Alphaeus.
- In some English versions of the Bible, Matthew’s Gospel tells us Thaddaeus was the surname of Lebbaeus; Mark simply lists Thaddaeus after James the son of Alphaeus. Luke’s Gospel omits Thaddaeus, but substitutes Judas, the son of James. The –aeus ending is typical of Greek names. Judas is a Hebrew name. So quite likely, these are the same person with different names for different contexts, just as Saul (a Jewish name) was renamed Paul (a Latin name) when he ministered among the Gentiles (Acts 13:9).
- Simon the Canaanite appears in Matthew and Mark, but is referred to as “the Zealot” in Luke.
- Judas Iscariot is noted as the one who betrayed Jesus in Matthew and Mark, while Luke bluntly states that he “became a traitor.” [Clearly, these three authors had no qualms about “spoilers” in their stories!]
Mark continues by noting that Jesus designated these twelve disciples as apostles—delegates, messengers, those sent on a mission with special orders to represent the one who sent them (Mark 3:14). His intention was to keep them close to train them, and then send them ahead of Him to preach. In verse 15, we are told they were given “power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons” (NKJV).
Speaking of demons, the next scene Mark focuses on takes place in a house, where a crowd gathered to such an extent that Jesus and His followers were not even able to grab something to eat (20). When his family got wind of it, they thought Jesus was nuts and were prepared to haul Him off to the Jewish equivalent of the funny farm (21).
The Jewish teachers of the law from Jerusalem were even more harsh about the state of Jesus’ mind and soul. They said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons” (22).
In Mark 3:23-26, Jesus used two illustrations to point out the irrationality of the religious leaders’ statement:
“How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.”
He then explained that no one can plunder the house of a powerful person, unless the man is restrained first (v. 27). The implication is that He, Jesus, was restraining the forces of evil in order to take back the captives and possessions that they had taken through sin.
Then to His critics, Jesus warned “all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin” (28-29). Jesus was actually driving out evil spirits by the power of the Holy Spirit of God, yet these men were saying it was because He had an evil spirit that He was doing it (30).
Next comes a passage that the proponents of the Catholic doctrine of the “ever virgin Mother of God” have trouble explaining. While Jesus was surrounded with all these crowds of people wanting to see and hear him speak, His mother and brothers arrived at the house to take Him into their custody (31a). Since Catholics believe that Mary never had any children other than Jesus, and that she and Joseph never had sexual relations after He was born, they claim that “brothers” in this case refers to Mary’s extended family members. However, as we see in Mark 6:3, Jesus had four half-brothers who were listed by name, as well as some sisters. They are mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, as well (Matt. 12:46-47 & 13:55-56, Luke 8:19-20, John 2:12 & 7:1-10, Acts 1:14).
Jesus’ biological family sent someone in to call Him out (Mark 3:31b). But when the message was relayed, Jesus asked the crowd, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (vv. 32-33). Motioning toward the disciples and other eager faces encircling Him, Jesus indicated that those faithful to Him and to God were His brothers, sisters and mothers (34-35). In other words, He identified more with the spiritual family of believers than with the family into which He had been born.
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